Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

The National's best album in ages, Laugh Track is authentic, organic and relatively raw

"Laugh Track"

Release date: 18 September 2023
The National Laugh Track cover
19 September 2023, 09:00 Written by Ross Horton

Depending on how you view The National, Laugh Track will either be a continuation of your steadfast adoration or – as will surely be the case with some fans – the first sign in a long time that the things that made them great are still around.

It’s been too easy to lose faith in The National, especially after two albums of concertedly, deliberately middling music that hoped to hit the feels without necessarily moving the hips. After a patchy couple of albums to open their career, they really hit their stride with 2005’s Alligator and 2007’s Boxer. Both were magnificent records, full of promise, that they then went on to deliver on with 2010’s High Violet and 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. Fans generally pick one of those four excellent records as their favourite, and they’re generally well-supported by critics regardless of their choice.

Their beautiful career arc started to go a bit wrong with 2017’s Sleep Well Beast and completely fell off the cliff with 2019’s I Am Easy to Find.

At times a slog of an album, only bolstered mildly by the appearance of guest voices, I Am Easy to Find eventually led to the real nadir of their career, this year’s First Two Pages of Frankenstein – a lightweight and often boring misstep that had no substance and very little style.

So here we are, with Laugh Track. The very good news is that it’s a much better album than its two immediate predecessors – but it would have taken some considerable effort for it to be worse. As it is, they’ve turned in their best album in ages by releasing some authentic, organic and relatively raw.

The album opens with the ominous, oppressive atmospherics of “Alphabet City”, before segueing into the thunderous “Deep End (Paul’s in Pieces)” – a song that acts as a rebirth for a band that desperately needed one.

“Weird Goodbyes”, featuring Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, is pleasant enough – a soft–touch electronic piece that finds Matt Berninger and Justin Vernon effortlessly blending their wonderful voices.

The title track, unfortunately, is one of the few low points on the album. The appearance of Phoebe Bridgers will immediately trigger a trauma response for those listeners who really struggled with the last record, where she was featured twice. Were Gail Ann Dorsey and Sharon Van Etten busy? They were two of the only good things about I Am Easy to Find.

Bryan Devendorf, often relegated in recent years to drum programming and live performance roles only, gets a real chance to shine on “Space Invader”, which is one of the better songs on the album. “Dreaming” is great too.

“Crumble” (featuring Rosanne Cash) is classic The National, but with the added concession of their recent obsession with a female counterpoint to Berninger’s baritone actually working this time out.

They also end with the best song: “Smoke Detector”. It’s abrasive, powerful and about as invigorating a song as they’ve ever done. Guitars howl and screech while the Devendorf rhythm section thunders beneath them. It’s one of the most sublime pieces they’ve done as a band.

Although a somewhat flawed album, there’s no denying that the band seem to have returned to the kind of nocturnal, elemental rock that made them famous in the first place.

A laugh track might be a cheap way of making something or someone seem more impressive than they actually are, but this album is the total opposite – a clear and consistent exercise in true class from a band who clearly haven’t lost a step, they just took a few stray ones.

Share article

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next